erik lundegaard

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Pleasing Yamauchi

On the eve of the Mariners’ first road trip this season, the usual chirpy enthusiasm of local TV newscasters contained a twist of chagrin as they turned to the sportscaster. Our Mariners? 0-3? Could it be? The sportscaster shrugged back helplessly — like the weatherman on the 12th day of rain — even as his smile remained high-wattage. Then he delivered what seemed like a warning. “No team in major league history,” he declared knowledgably, while reading from cue cards, “has ever started a season oh-and-four and gone on to win the World Series.”

Sitting on my couch, I laughed and saluted the TV set with my bottle of beer. “And no team in major league history has ever started the season named ‘The Seattle Mariners’ and gone on to win the World Series,” I declared knowledgably.

I usually don’t sit at home drinking and talking to myself — I want that known now — but all the chirpiness had finally gotten to me. Because even the nay-saying was full of yays. The World Series? This Mariners team? What were they talking about?

Weirder things have happened, sure, but my pre-season prediction had been 81-81. Why was I so pessimistic? Because while the Mariners won 93 games last year, they were a .500 ballclub in the second half. Most fans and journalists, and certainly most of the M’s owners, treated the second half as an anomaly, when, given our talent, the first half seemed the anomaly to me.

Meanwhile, our off-season upgrades were piecemeal and debatable — generally trading offense for defense. We went after Miguel Tejada but didn’t land him — thankfully, because I think he’s overrated. We made hardly any moves at all towards Vladimir Guerrero, one of the best players in baseball. And our biggest move? Largely unquestioned. We spent $44 million — $11 million per year, the biggest per-year contract in Mariners history — on a light-hitting right fielder named Ichiro Suzuki.

“Whoa!” people are already saying. “How can you diss Ichiro? He’s our best guy!”

Well, one of the best measures of offensive production is OPS (On-base Plus Slugging), and during his three seasons with the Mariners, Ichiro’s OPS has gone from .838 to .813 to .788. His 2003 OPS tied him for 89th best in the Majors. That’s 89th out of 165 qualifying players. Not even half-best.

“Yeah,” some may object. “but Ichiro’s a lead-off guy! He’s not about power!”

OK. So let’s look strictly at the most important statistic for a lead-off hitter: On-Base Percentage. Ichiro’s OBP last season was .352. It tied him for 68th best in the Majors, with, among others, Tino Martinez.

In other stats he fared better. Tied for second in hits with 212, tied for 11th in runs scored, tied for 8th in stolen bases. But do these numbers equal $11 million per year? Another $3 million and we might have gotten Vlad Guerrero, two years younger than Ichiro, with a career OPS of .978. The mouth waters.

We can’t pretend age isn’t a factor, either. In Ichiro’s rookie season, Rick Rizzs, Mr. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, kept reveling in Ichiro’s many infield basehits. It was a source of excitement for him but it made me worried. What happens when Ichiro loses a half-step? Won’t all of those infield hits become outs? They have, sooner than later.

Of course there were other reasons for signing Ichiro to the biggest per-year contract in Mariners history, most of them having to do with the perceived wishes of majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi and the perceived monetary value Ichiro brings to the club. But that’s my point. Most Mariner signings have very little to do with winning. We always have other priorities first: Profits, fan-friendliness, clubhouse chemistry, pleasing Yamauchi, not disagreeing with Howard Lincoln. The World Series? Well, it’s a nice thought.

Another club that stumbled out of the starting gate is arriving at Safeco Field for a three-game series on May 7th, but I’m assuming, come October, the New York Yankees will be in the post-season. It’s not just because of their astronomical payroll; it’s because, to owner George Steinbrenner, there is no more important goal than winning. His favorite movie is Patton, in which the title character declares: “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” That’s Steinbrenner, too. Sure, the guy is classless and loudmouthed, and now he cries at the drop of a hat, but above all he wants to win, and that’s more than you can say about Mariner ownership.

—originally published in The Grand Salami